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“Friendship is a religion”

By Geoff Wisner

Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in the city of Fès in 1944. He attended an Arabic-French elementary school, studied French in Tangier until the age of eighteen, then studied philosophy and wrote his first poems at Mohammed V University in Rabat. He is best known for his novels The Sand Child and The Sacred Night, each of which has been translated into forty-three languages, and Racism Explained to My Daughter, which was translated into thirty-three languages.

Ben Jelloun's slim 1994 book La soudure fraternelle (The Fraternal Bond) is a memoir of friendship. In it he writes, "Friendship is a religion with no God or final judgment. With no devil either. A religion that is no stranger to love. But a love from which war and hate are banished, in which silence is possible."

The passage below was translated for my anthology African Lives by Alexis Pernsteiner and Antoine Bargel.

At Koranic school, we didn’t have time to make friends. Every morning, we were dropped off at the little neighborhood mosque. We would take off our shoes, sit down on hard mats, and endlessly recite the day’s verses. We had to learn the Koran by heart. The teacher—faqih—would call out the first phrase and all together we would repeat after him. It was boring and tedious. What can a five-year-old child possibly find pleasurable in memorizing verses which he cannot understand? What’s more, we didn’t have recess. Mornings were endless. At lunch, we would leave school, hoping never to return. We would come back in the afternoon, and take advantage of the faqih’s drowsiness to say whatever we felt like.

My neighbor in class could have become a friend. He would save a place for me next to him, and, like me, he was always chomping at the bit in anticipation of the lunch hour. We both felt the same about this forced learning, but didn’t dare say anything to our parents.

The faqih had this rather long stick to rouse the students who would fall asleep in the back of the class. We didn’t like him. He was a mean old man. His beard was sparse and dirty. He had an evil look in his eye. We wondered why. Anyway, he didn’t like my neighbor, Hafid, who had an abnormally large head. He held the fact that Hafid wasn’t like the other kids against him. I never understood this bias.

Hafid and I could have become good friends, if death hadn’t taken him away halfway through the year.

One morning, the faqih didn’t show up. We all went home. I hadn’t seen Hafid either. Soon a rumor started spreading: “Hafid died! From fluids that mixed with the blood in his brain; the faqih has gone to make the preparations to send him to heaven, for when children die, they become angels. They are not submitted to the Final Judgment.”

Published Nov 6, 2012   Copyright 2012 Geoff Wisner

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